AUSTIN (KXAN) — On Saturday, the Austin Police Department launched an investigation after public safety personnel recovered a body from Lady Bird Lake, near the Longhorn Dam. On Monday afternoon, police identified the man as 30-year-old Christopher Hays-Clark.
At this time, officials said there are no indications of suspicious activity or foul play related to the death. But that hasn’t stopped rumors from circulating in recent months that hypothesize criminal activity is tied to these cases.
The rumors have been fueled, in part, by two drownings earlier this year, prior to Saturday’s recovery. While both cases remain under investigation, officers have said preliminary evidence indicates they aren’t rooted in foul play.
Dr. Carsten Andresen, an associate professor of criminal justice at St. Edward’s University, told KXAN these are the latest of a string of conspiracies he’s seen crop up in cities across the country within recent months.
A preliminary search Andresen conducted found nine cities with significant social media chatter correlating cases with an alleged serial killer, despite no indication of that from law enforcement. Those include alleged rumors targeting San Antonio, Kansas City, Huntington, West Virginia and Seattle since September.
“Human nature has always looked at things and sort of looked for patterns that may or may not exist,” he said. “But also, social media and the ability to just sort of put these rumors online and sort of have them go out like wildfire.”
Kevin Lawrence, the executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association, said enhanced public interest doesn’t influence investigations themselves.
On Saturday, police described the latest case as a “very unfortunate incident.” Andresen said the prevalence of these cases involving large bodies of water near downtown Austin entertainment districts speak to a larger issue of substance abuse paired with dangerous access to waterways.
“We are just a party zone,” Andresen said, adding: “I don’t think that we’ve seen anything that would lead one to conclude that there’s a serial killer out there. But we do know that people drink to excess in Austin, and that men often engage in at-risk behavior.”
It’s that same combination of entertainment districts near waterways that led Austin City Council to take action last week to pursue enhanced safety measures near the Rainey Street trailhead along Lady Bird Lake.
Some options the city is pursuing included bolstered Park Ranger and EMS presence near the trailhead, as well as possibly more High Activity Location Observation (HALO) cameras throughout the entertainment district.
While the city is looking into more security cameras near these areas, Andresen said the very existence of security and personal, in-phone cameras is why serial killers are far less prevalent now compared to decades prior.
“There were no cameras. We didn’t have all of the ways of being able to track people’s movements that you do today,” he said. “Anybody that engages in serial murder today: Everybody’s looking for you. You’re on film, victims’ cameras, on their phones, we’re tracking them.”
Beyond just in Austin, Andresen said the fascination and perseveration of conspiracy theories speak to strained trust some people have in institutions. While the necessity for trust and public outreach is vital for law enforcement to engage in, he said the prevalence of misinformation makes even the most legitimate information vulnerable to public scrutiny.
“Today, evidence is just disregarded as another form of propaganda,” he said. “And I think that makes it extremely hard for anybody to sort of get a message out if everything is considered propaganda.”